Rick Warren’s tipping point

RickWarrenI’m not sure these days whether to be thankful for The New Yorker‘s frequent interest in the Godbeat or to be frustrated that it posts so few religion stories to its website. Fair enough, the web content for the September 12 issue focuses heavily on Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on New Orleans. When your archives include a 28,000-word essay by John McPhee on efforts to control Mississippi River flooding, you’re wise to raid the archives.

Still, think of what The New Yorker left out from this week’s issue: Eight pages. On Rick Warren. By Malcolm Gladwell.

I’ve gushed about The New Yorker‘s Peter Boyer before in this space, and his byline always means thoughtful coverage, but there’s a great chemistry between Warren (one of the most significant influences on contemporary evangelicalism) and Gladwell (who can write more than 5,000 words on, geez, personality testing and make every word count).

Gladwell’s article includes some tasty details:

• Warren predicted before he wrote The Purpose-Driven Life that it would sell 100 million copies (it’s nearly a quarter of the way there).

• Warren’s hero is the 19th-century London preacher Charles Spurgeon.

• Warren is a friend of Peter Drucker’s, who says, “Warren is not building a tent revival ministry, like the old-style evangelists. He’s building an army, like the Jesuits.”

• Scott Bolinder of Zondervan Publishing uses the phrase “the tipping point” while speaking to the author who introduced that phrase into widespread usage: “That became the tipping point — being able to launch that book with eleven hundred churches, right from the get-go. They became the evangelists for the book.”

• “Twenty-five thousand churches have now participated in the congregation-wide ’40 Days of Purpose’ campaign, as have hundreds of small groups within companies and organizations, from the N.B.A. to the United States Postal Service.” (We can expect the complaints about church-state separation any day now.)

One disappointment is Gladwell’s political reading of the Lord’s Prayer, which comes in the middle of an otherwise level-headed explanation of how evangelicals can speak of America as a Christian nation without intending to establish a theocracy:

The New Tesatment’s most left-liberal text, the Lord’s Prayer — which, it should be pointed out, begins with a call for utopian social restructuring (“They will be done, On Earth as it is in Heaven”), then welfare relief (“Give us this day our daily bread”), and then income redistribution (“Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors”).

There are plenty of texts to choose from such as (Matt. 25:31-46) to establish Jesus’ radical concern for the poor, and his warnings for those who add to, or do nothing to relieve, their oppression.

Warren indulges in some name-dropping:

“I had dinner with Jack Welch last Sunday night,” he said. “He came to church, and we had dinner. I’ve been kind of mentoring him on his spiritual journey. And he said to me, ‘Rick, you are the biggest thinker I have ever met in my life. The only other person I know who thinks globally like you is Rupert Murdoch.’ And I said, ‘That’s interesting. I’m Rupert’s pastor! Rupert published my book!’”

Now try to picture Murdoch clapping and swaying to “What a Mighty God We Serve.”

For a time it looks as though Gladwell will neglect the crucial role of The Purpose-Driven Life in Ashley Smith’s encounter with escaped prisoner Brian Nichols, or his efforts to turn Rwanda into nothing less than a Purpose-Driven Nation. But Gladwell delivers on both angles, and with the subtle balance his admirers expect from him regularly.

Gladwell writes of how Warren saw, in Psalm 72, how King David asked for greater wealth and influence so he could help the poor:

Out of that psalm, God said to me that the purpose of influence is to speak up for those who have no influence. That changed my life. I had to repent. I said, I’m sorry, widows and orphans have not been on my radar. I live in Orange County. I life in the Saddleback Valley, which is all gated communities. There aren’t any homeless people around. They are thirteen miles away, in Santa Ana, not here.” He gestured toward the rolling green hills outside. “I started reading through Scripture. I said, How did I miss the two thousand verses on the poor in the Bible? So I said, I will use whatever affluence and influence that you give me to help those who are marginalized.”

He and his wife, Kay, decided to reverse tithe, giving away ninety per cent of the tens of millions of dollars they earned from “The Purpose-Driven Life.” They sat down with gay community leaders to talk about fighting AIDS. Warren has made repeated trips to Africa. He has sent out volunteers to forty-seven countries around the world, test-piloting experiments in microfinance and H.I.V. prevent and medical education. He decided to take the same networks he had built to train pastors and spread the purpose-driven life and put them to work on social problems.

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Divine judgment?

circles of hellAlan Cooperman’s article in Sunday’s Washington Post on the how some see God at work in the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina disappoints. In taking on such a heady issue, Cooperman fails to go outside the usual sources and seems to trip up over the fact that the typical heavyweights in Christian circles failed to issue harsh condemnations from heaven on the sinners of New Orleans.

Cooperman is successful in digging up pro-lifers who saw to-be-born babies on weather maps and Muslims who saw this as the “wind of torment and evil that Allah has sent to this American empire.” Others include a person who saw the juxtaposition of the Israeli pullout of the Gaza Strip and the citizens of New Orleans as no coincidence.

My personal favorite in Cooperman’s article was Michael Marcavage of Philadelphia:

In Philadelphia, Michael Marcavage saw no coincidence, either, in the hurricane’s arrival just as gay men and lesbians from across the country were set to participate in a New Orleans street festival called “Southern Decadence.”

“We take no joy in the death of innocent people,” said Marcavage, who was an intern in the Clinton White House in 1999 and now runs Repent America, an evangelistic organization calling for “a nation in rebellion toward God” to reclaim its senses.

“But we believe that God is in control of the weather,” he said in a telephone interview. “The day Bourbon Street and the French Quarter was flooded was the day that 125,000 homosexuals were going to be celebrating sin in the streets. . . . We’re calling it an act of God.”

Fortunately for the country, it looks like Falwell and Robertson learned their lessons from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks:

The Rev. Jerry Falwell and the Rev. Pat Robertson, who were roundly criticized for suggesting that the Sept. 11 attacks were divine retribution for abortion, homosexuality, feminism and the proliferation of liberal groups, have been silent on the meaning of the hurricane. Most of the major Christian political advocacy groups also have been cautious.

“It’s a very risky business ascribing divine intent to natural disasters. Nobody but God really knows why these things occur,” said Robert Knight, director of Concerned Women for America’s Culture and Family Institute.

Well, no kidding. Last time I checked it is risky business attempting to speak for The Almighty.

Cooperman gets himself into trouble as he wades into the deep theological waters of speculating on the way the hand of God works in the world. Unfortunately, he relies solely on the opinions of the Rev. Alex McFarland, who works as Focus on the Family’s director of teen apologetics, and Ted Steinberg, a history professor at Case Western Reserve University. Nothing against McFarland and Steinberg and what they have to say, but couldn’t Cooperman track down someone with a bit more theological weight?

The two viewpoints expounded in the article attempt to pigeonhole the vast breadth of viewpoints from both atheists and Christians, and while I do not expect a relatively short news story to cover the expanse, I would expect it to acknowledge the broad range of views and quote people of greater theological gravitas and significance.

Jeffrey Weiss’ article in Friday’s Dallas Morning News deals with the similar issue of prayer much more thoroughly.

Here is a selection of some of the questions Weiss attempts to tackle:

But many Christians, Jews, Muslims and others who now turn to their deity in prayer must also turn past age-old questions:

If God is all-powerful and all-knowing, and if he cares about humanity’s fate, what’s the point of prayer? Doesn’t he (or she) already know everything that we want and everything that we need?

And didn’t he allow — if not direct — the very hurricane that caused the suffering we’re now asking him to alleviate? Yes, the evil in the disaster area increasingly has a human face — looters, snipers, roaming bands of criminals. But the trigger for the suffering was Katrina, an “act of God.”

Didn’t he already ordain what has happened and what will happen, no matter what we do?

Why do we pray?

These are all excellent questions that take more than a news story to answer, but the effort was certainly a valiant one.

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ReligionLink tackles the hurricane

relilinkThe pros at the Religion Newswriters Association have posted a collection of resources linked to Hurricane Katrina and the swarm of spiritual and moral questions events such as this raise. Check it out.

Some of this is pretty standard material, offering theological echoes of the tsunami story. Thus, item No. 1 in the ReligionLink list is:

Evil And Suffering

Katrina has inspired talk of why such destruction occurs. Where is God? Why would God allow such suffering? Why do bad things happen to good people? Is Katrina a sign of the end times? With New Orleans, a city known for drinking, debauchery and licentiousness, there is an added factor. Some suggest that the city’s sins caused the storm to ravage it. These questions will play out in the conversations of storm victims, relief workers, donors to relief efforts, clergy and political leaders in the days to come, revealing much about the foundations of people’s beliefs.

Obviously, I think the middle section of that note is spot on. But check out the rest of the list. Some of this stuff is really strong — the power of prayer, homelessness, charity, race, class, technology, hope, burials, voodoo. And can the historic churches and cemeteries be saved?

Try to imagine what a journalist would run into researching a feature on how different faiths will view funerals and burials under these circumstances. Is there a Roman Catholic rite for the re-burial of a body?

And voodoo. What happens if you let New Orleans be New Orleans?

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Revenge of Al Gore’s God: Part II

God spared New Orleans. Sort of.

That means God sent the storm to Mississippi. Maybe.

God is now pouring out his wrath on New Orleans. It just seemed like the city was spared with that final Eastern tweak in the storm path.

It’s a global warming thing. Mother Nature is taking her revenge.

God and/or Mother Nature is also mad about America and all its SUVs that drink so much gas. This is going to show America the error of its ways. Somewhere, Al Gore is laughing.

And so forth and so on. It is hard to watch the Katrina coverage without hearing variations on all of those themes in the back of my mind, a kind of nightmare flashback to the questions of last fall (when I was living in West Palm Beach). Once again, the only God language we are hearing in the coverage right now are the prayers of thanksgiving by the survivors. Another predictable layer of faith language will show up — as it should — as aid pours into the region.

But veteran religion reporter Deborah Caldwell at Beliefnet has plunged into the theological blame game. This is tricky territory, but she has done a fine job of listening to the muttering voices on both sides of the religious aisle.

Was this storm linked to recent events in Israel?

All along the theological and political spectrum, Katrina has crystallized people’s fears into a now-familiar brew of apocalyptic theories similar to what we saw after September 11 and after the Asian tsunami several months ago.

At least one New Orleans-area resident believes God created the storm as punishment because of the recent role the United States played in expelling Jews from Gaza. On Sunday evening, Bridgett Magee of Slidell, La., told the Christian website Jerusalem Newswire that she saw the hurricane “as a direct ‘coming back on us’ [for] what we did to Israel: a home for a home.” Stan Goodenough, a website columnist, described Katrina as “the fist of God” in a Monday column. “What America is about to experience is the lifting of God’s hand of protection; the implementation of His judgment on the nation most responsible for endangering the land and people of Israel,” Goodenough writes. “The Bible talks about Him shaking His fist over bodies of water, and striking them.”

Meanwhile, spiritual and political environmentalists say that massive hurricanes such as Katrina, along with the Asian tsunami, are messages from the earth, letting humanity know of the earth’s pain. These hurricanes are caused by global warming, environmentalists say, which are the result of using too much fossil fuel. They see the catastrophic consequences as a kind of comeuppance.

And then there is this excellent summary quotation (although I also want to know how a professor evolves into an expert on apocalyptic media):

Stephen O’Leary, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California and an expert on the media and apocalypticism, says, “God’s got a two-fer here. Both sides are eager to see America punished for her sins; on one side it’s sexual immorality and porn and Hollywood, and on the other side it’s conspicuous consumption and Hummers.”

Even The Associated Press has pulled out some of the stops and, Caldwell writes, has started “priming the doomsday pump.” Here is one of those leads:

“When Hurricane Katrina hits New Orleans on Monday, it could turn one of America’s most charming cities into a vast cesspool tainted with toxic chemicals, human waste and even coffins released by floodwaters from the city’s legendary cemeteries.”

I tried to wade into this last year in one of the columns that I wrote amid the wreakage in South Florida. The crucial thing, for me, is that these kinds of questions are being asked right now on the ground in the Gulf Coast region. That means they are fair game for the media. My question is this: Who are the sources? Who are the best sources? Who are the untapped sources? Any ideas?

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Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please (that BTK guy, too)

tunnel3I was on the road this weekend and, believe it or not, WiFi was a problem at the hotel I visited in New York City. How hard is it to find a Starbucks in that town? Anyway, I wanted to add a quick note about Newsweek’s cover from last week — specifically the poll on what people believe about salvation and heaven.

Now, our friends at Beliefnet have already jumped on this. Click here for the “Who Gets Into Heaven?” package and, more importantly, click here for editor Steven Waldman’s essay, “The Pearly Gates Are Wide Open.”

It seems that more and more Americans are thirsting for religious experience and spiritual depth, of some kind, but they also believe that this has nothing to do with salvation and eternal life. In effect, we are watching the rise of the charismatic universalists.

Here is the crucial information from Waldman’s report.

Traditional Christians will flinch at the word “earn” in the lead, but keep reading.

One of the central tenets of evangelical Christianity is that to be saved — to earn admission into heaven — you must accept Jesus Christ as your savior. Yet 68% of “born again” or “evangelical” Christians say that a “good person who isn’t of your religious faith” can gain salvation, according to a new Newsweek/Beliefnet poll.

This is pretty amazing. Evangelicals are among the most churchgoing and religiously attentive people in the United States, and one of the ideas they’re most likely to hear from the minister at church on a given Sunday is that the path to salvation is through Jesus. Apparently, rank-and-file evangelicals have a different view. . . . Nationally, 79% of those surveyed said the same thing, and the figure is 73% for non-Christians and an astounding 91% among Catholics. The Catholics surveyed seemed more inclined to listen to the Catechism’s precept that those who “seek the truth” may gain salvation — rather than, say, St. Augustine’s view that being “separated from the Church” will damn you to hell “no matter how estimable a life he may imagine he is living.”

It is interesting that American Catholics now appear to be to the theological left, on salvation issues, of the secular public. That’s another story.

The evangelical numbers are actually not all that surprising for those who have followed the career of sociologist James Davision Hunter. Long before he wrote his famous Culture Wars study, he wrote a book titled Evangelicalism: The Coming Generation. He found, in the late 1980s, that a growing number of evangelicals at Christian colleges and universities were drifting away from the traditional Christian belief that salvation is found through Jesus Christ, alone. This fundamental change in the evangelical world is a major story, even if it is a generation old.

All of this made me think of heaven, hell and Dennis Rader of Wichita, Kan., and thinking about what we can and cannot know about the soul of the BTK murderer made me think about Jeffrey Dahmer. There are people who believe that everyone is going to heaven, no matter what. They get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer. There are people who get nervous thinking about Rader and Dahmer repenting and going to heaven.

More than a decade ago, I wrote a Scripps Howard News Service column about this and, in the wake of the Rader case, several people have written me asking for copies. The problem is that this column predates my tmatt.net website. I would like to post it here, so that people using Google can find it on their own. I believe the contents are still newsworthy and point to a story linked to the Rader and Newsweek stories. The original title on the column was this: “Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.”

11/30/94

Most Americans have a good idea who they want to see go to hell — murderers, dictators, drug dealers and, certainly, anyone who tortures and kills children.

So this week’s bloody news from the Columbia Correctional Center in Wisconsin inspired many to utter a plea to the powers of darkness: Take Jeffrey Dahmer, please.

But it’s hard to ponder the fate of this infamous killer without running into a paradox. While most people in this nominally Christian nation say they believe in hell, their actual beliefs clash with both liberal and conservative versions of Christianity.

“Most people wanted Jeffrey Dahmer to fry,” said the Rev. Kendall Harmon, an Episcopal theologian from Summerville, S.C., whose doctoral work at Oxford University covered 20 centuries of teachings about hell. “Now that he’s dead, they’re celebrating and they’re absolutely sure he will burn in hell, because that’s what happens to people like him.”

Dahmer died on Monday after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.

Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.

Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate — even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.

Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.

The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.

A Gallup poll in 1990 found that 60 percent of Americans believe in hell, while 78 percent believe in heaven. Only 4 percent thought there was any chance that they would go to hell.

This pop theology is “really sad, because all it is is a projection of modern American values onto God,” said Harmon. “You end up with something that in no way resembles Christianity and is actually a vile form of secularism. . . . What most people want is justice, on their terms, or they want mercy, on their terms. What few people acknowledge is that God is in charge and he has set his own terms.”

Ironically, public belief in hell — for really bad people — also can be seen as a rejection of a modern theological trend. Most Christian liberals have embraced one of many forms of “universalism,” the belief that all people are saved, no matter what they believe or what they do. According to universalists, Dahmer had nothing to worry about in the first place.

But it’s hard to escape what the Bible says about eternal judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus claims that he will someday put the “righteous people at his right and the others at his left. . . . Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Away from me, you that are under God’s curse! Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!’”

Harmon is convinced that hell matters. The 20th century has seen more than its share of hellish spectacles, from the Holocaust to Hiroshima, he said. Meanwhile, 19 centuries of Christian doctrine about hell have faded into fuzzy sentiment about a lowest common denominator heaven.

“This should make us pause and think,” he said. “Is this just a coincidence, or have we begun to take evil less seriously?”

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From the specific to the overstated

newsweek082605Newsweek‘s latest cover package is a religion writer’s dream — 16 pages of prime editorial space to discuss American religions in their ever-expanding diversity and custom-tailored worldviews.

The package is strongest, though, when it focuses on the individual details: an evangelical in West Virginia who’s an environmental activist; life at a Southern California mosque; a Church of God in Christ bishop in Memphis who is the denomination’s president; an African American Baptist Buddhist; observant young Catholics at Franciscan University of Steubenville; and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a Kabbalah teacher based in Boulder, Colo.

Jerry Adler, author of the mainbar, pokes justifiable fun at Time magazine’s “Is God Dead?” cover package from April 1966:

History records that the vanguard of angst-ridden intellectuals in Time, struggling to imagine God as a cloud of gas in the far reaches of the galaxy, never did sweep the nation. What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God. And a uniquely American acceptance of the amazingly diverse paths people have taken to find it.

Adler (supported by reporting from six other Newsweek writers) makes some tooth-grinding generalizations himself, and one doesn’t need another 40 years to recognize them. Here are several.

A false choice

“You can know all about God,” says Tony Campolo, a prominent evangelist [not to mention his decades-long career as a sociology professor], “but the question is, do you know God? You can have solid theology and be orthodox to the core, but have you experienced God in your own life?” In the broadest sense, Campolo says, the Christian believer and the New Age acolyte are on the same mission: “We are looking for transcendence in the midst of the mundane.” And what could be more mundane than politics? Seventy-five percent say that a “very important” reason for their faith is to “forge a personal relationship with God” — not fighting political battles.

Today, then, the real spiritual quest is not to put another conservative on the Supreme Court, or to get creation science into the schools. If you experience God directly, your faith is not going to hinge on whether natural selection could have produced the flagellum of a bacterium. If you feel God within you, then the important question is settled; the rest is details.

Has any Intelligent Design advocate ever suggested that Christian faith should depend on whether natural selection produced the flagellum of a bacterium?

Oh, really?

In America even atheists are spiritualists, searching for meaning in parapsychology and near-death experiences. There is a streak in the United States of relying on what Pacific Lutheran’s Killen calls “individual visceral experience” to validate religious ideas.

Examples, please, of atheists who put their faith in parapsychology or near-death experiences. Even one example would be nice.

Misunderstanding tongues

“For people who feel overlooked, it provides a sense that you’re a very important person,” observes Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. By the same token, people with social aspirations preferred other churches, but nowadays Pentecostalism — the faith of former attorney general John Ashcroft — has lost its stigma as a religion of the poor. And elements of Pentecostal worship are invading other denominations, a change that coincided with the introduction of arena-style screens in churches, replacing hymnals and freeing up people’s hands to clap and wave. Naturally, there is some attenuation as you move up the socioeconomic scale. Babbling in foreign-sounding “tongues” turns into discreet murmurs of affirmation.

Actually, most tongue-speakers understand their gift as focusing on communication with God.

Syncretism in Cambridge? Shut up!

Stephen Cope, who attended Episcopal divinity school but later trained as a psychotherapist, dropped into a meditation center in Cambridge, Mass., one day and soon found himself spending six hours every Sunday sitting and walking in silent contemplation. Then he added yoga to his routine, which he happily describes as “like gasoline on fire” when it comes to igniting a meditative state. And the great thing is, he still attends his Episcopal church — a perfect example of the new American spirituality, with a thirst for transcendence too powerful to be met by just one religion.

Memo to Newsweek: At Episcopal Divinity School of Cambridge, Mass. — easily the most theologically liberal seminary in a mostly liberal denomination — Stephen Cope’s experience is more likely to be the norm rather than the exception. To what extent this represents mainstream Christianity is far less clear.

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Preaching in Billy Graham’s shadow

TwoGrahamsPeter J. Boyer of The New Yorker has become an indispensable reporter on the Godbeat, and his recent story on Billy and Franklin Graham is another solid achievement. (The article, from the Aug. 22 issue, is not available online, but the magazine atones for that by offering an engaging slideshow of black-and-white photos by Mary Ellen Mark, along with an audio track by Boyer.)

Boyer focuses strongly on the differences between father and son, and those differences defy stereotypes. So often the script for a World War II-era father and his Baby Boomer son would be that the elderly father is a crusty ideologue and the son is more experimental and laissez-faire. Not so here:

Although Franklin’s preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father’s he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy’s theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God’s love, Franklin’s is more elemental. “My message is very focussed,” he says. “My message is to call on people to repent their sins.” Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. “The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that’s in Hell, one day is going to bow,” he says. “And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you’re going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you’re going to be forced. And when you’re forced it’s going to be too late then.”

Boyer’s 13-page article is a thorough survey of the highlights in Billy Graham’s long vocation as an itinerant evangelist, and of his role in giving evangelicalism a public face. Boyer is especially strong in explaining Graham’s decisive break from fundamentalism. (This article is a rare case of using that word accurately and without a sneer.)

The article glosses over some of Billy Graham’s harder edges as a younger preacher. Some of Graham’s critics in the 1950s were just as troubled by his remarks on communism as today’s critics would be by Franklin Graham’s remarks on Islam.

Still, the article also mentions that Franklin already has attracted the respect of Richard Holbrooke’s, President Clinton’s former Ambassador to the United Nations:

Holbrooke says that Graham has been “enormously important” in the fight against AIDS abroad. “Samaritan’s Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation — the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro-foreign-aid people.”

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Flying the flag at World Youth Day

050821 WYD2005 09 sOne of our favorite topics to whine about here at GetReligion is the shameful job that some American newspapers do of displaying the work of their religion-beat specialists.

All over the place — think Denver, Chicago and Orlando for starters — there are talented and committed Godbeat scribes whose editors do next to nothing to help WWW-era readers find their work. Want to find fashion, autos, health or weather? That’s easy. Religion coverage? That is often next to impossible. The Los Angeles Times recently seemed to go out of its way to make it harder to find this beat. You think I am joking? Check this out.

One of the best of the hidden talents is Ann Rodgers in Pittsburgh. In the midst of the waves of “Catholic Woodstock” and “Is Benedict XVI as charismatic as that John Paul II man that we admire now that he is gone?” coverage, she files this highly symbolic lead — local angle, even — with a World Youth Day dateline:

After nearly a week of being very low-key about their nationality, a group of young Catholics from the South Hills began flying the stars and stripes yesterday. . . .

All pilgrims from the United States had been warned not to display their flag because it might make them targets of political hatred. Many carried state flags — the bear of California was everywhere. The South Hills group had carried a Steelers pennant to help them find each other in crowds where they could easily become separated.

But all week they had seen thousands of people from lands as diverse as Tahiti and Sweden proudly displaying their national colors. They had spotted a few American groups also flying large flags, with no apparent ill effects.

We could wish this story wasn’t timely, but it is.

Any other overlooked World Youth Day stories out there that GetReligion readers want to nominate for special attention?

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